by Nicki Leone
At the close “Big River,” one of the stories in Josh Rolnick’s short fiction collection Pulp and Paper, the narrator muses about the gold record Carl Sagan launched into space on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977, a recording of some “important” things about the human race and the planet earth: sounds of the ocean, of whales, of tree frogs, of Chuck Berry; “Hello from Earth” in sixty-plus languages.
Finch, a young man facing the disintegration of a love affair with his childhood sweetheart due to an unplanned pregnancy, contemplates the doomed fate of this far-flung attempt to tell an alien race what really matters about us: “Some of the best stuff we have down here” he notes, “has nothing to do with those sounds and everything to do with the spaces between them”—the sound of the moon, when he and his girl are looking through a telescope at the Sea of Tranquility, while all around them the world smells like the wet dirt of early spring. The sound of the woman he loves, starting to smile. Reading Pulp and Paper, one gets the sense that Rolnick himself is training his lens on the many quiet “spaces between” in his stories, and illuminating, in the gentlest of ways, how these spaces are what really connect us.
In most of the stories, the main character has his (and in one case, her) world suddenly shift because of the kind of collision that happens when someone comes along with a different perspective on all you have taken for granted. In the story of Finch and his girl, Garnet, Finch finds out first that Garnet is pregnant, and then, that the life he always thought they both wanted, she doesn’t. And he also finds out, heartbreakingly, that just because you are spinning apart doesn’t mean you both don’t still love each other.
In “Big Lake,” a young man discovers that the guilt he carries for the accidental death of a teacher is shared by someone else, who feels just as justifiably at fault. In one of those “spaces between” the action, the two talk on a New Year’s Eve night, each finding in the other some kind of absolution. The young narrator of “The Innkeeper” is desperate to save his mother from a love affair with a man who is not who he says he is. But in another of those “between” moments, he discovers that his mother is not blind to the deception, and not at all averse to a flawed romance if it will salve her loneliness. These moments of connection that bring comfort, sorrow, or even revelation are strewn throughout the stories in Pulp and Paper. Rolnick has made a kind of art of them.
“I’ve always been one of those writers whose stories tend to emerge more powerfully when they come from a specific place,” Rolnick told The Review Review last March. Pulp and Paper is loosely divided into two sections, the New Jersey stories set on the gritty, seen-better-days boardwalks of the Atlantic coast and the New York stories in the rolling foothills of the southernmost Adirondack mountains. Rolnick’s work is consistently infused with a vivid sense of place despite the Anytown ring to locales in stories like “Big River,” “Big Lake,” and “Mainlanders.”
It is sometimes said of “regional” schools of writing that setting is its own character in the work. Think of the South of Ron Rash, or the West of Annie Proulx. Rolnick has a different approach. Setting is not a character; it is something revealed by his characters. Place—that powerful source for the author—takes its contours through the eyes of the people in his stories. We see the horizon as they see it, the country they walk only matters because they walk it. “We sucked in our stomachs, puffed up our chests, selected the biggest waves and rode them all the way into the sand crab zone,” says one of the boys in “Mainlanders,” who is trying to impress a couple of girls from off the island—girls who, you can be sure, are happily oblivious to the existence of the sand crab zone of the beach.
“He stepped into the woods where Cody had exited,” recounts a newspaper reporter trying to uncover a missing woman’s fate in “The Herald,” “and right away, the chill rose up in him. He could smell the river, brackish and muddy, even from there, and a cold dampness brushed his bones. This is what she saw, he thought. This is what she smelled.” Rolnick’s own experience as a stringer is evident here. You can almost hear the reporter composing the story he will write in his head.
Though sense of place is vital to each of the stories in Rolnick’s collection, it is nowhere more vivid than in the title story, “Pulp and Paper.” Here, a train accident in western New York has caused an environmental disaster, one that unfolds in slow motion through the eyes of people who are brushed by death: “On the Train Trestle Bridge, the 109 attracted the attention of a fisherman a few hundred feet below, wending a spinner through the foaming currents. ‘She was movin’ kind of herky-jerky,’ he said.”
Gail Denny is still awake and watching infomercials when the explosion happens—far enough away that she thinks it’s thunder. She walks out to her porch, looks across the fields toward her closest neighbor—whose light is still on—and pets her cat.
It was as she was watching him go that she noticed the fog, stretching fingerlike, from between the trees. In that first instant, it was beautiful. Almost heartbreakingly so. A moment or two later, though, before Fisher disappeared into the trees—before the fog enveloped the shed, facing the hills, and then her gardenias, in the beds—she smelled burnt pineapple. Pepper-flecked and harsh.
Rolnick shows us landscape the way our own memories treat it—not as something eternal, but something that exists in flashes of snapshot moments, super clear against the backdrop of our mundane lives.
People tend to describe Rolnick’s stories as being about loss and redemption. He puts it another way. “I’ve always been interested in writing about the ways we take care of each other,” he says—in the same interview where he also admits that his colleagues at the Iowa Writers Workshop dubbed him “the writer who ended all his stories with a hug.” The hugs are not always in evidence in the stories in Pulp and Paper, but the care is achingly present. Perhaps no story so well illustrates this than “Funnyboy,” the first in the collection and easily one of the book’s strongest.
I glanced out the window as my train pulled into the station and saw the girl who killed my son.
So opens the story of a man who has never gotten over the death of his little boy. Levi Stern dwells in a limbo of eternal grief; the accident—Richie rode his bike out into traffic and the car, driven by a local teenager, never had a chance to swerve—ended not only his son’s life, but seems to have frozen the father’s at the moment of loss. He is stuck in time. “Do you know that I no longer enjoy doing the things that we used to do together, Richie and I?” he asks the reader.
Like fishing. I no longer enjoy hooking a worm through the meatiest part, so that the barb punctures the skin on the other side, and then rearing the line back, releasing the bailer, waiting for the rod to shimmy. Believe me, I’ve tried. The smell of earth and rich roots gets up my nose and makes me sick.
He lives trapped in the single moment, and the girl driving the car—Missy Jones—bounces along, a cheerleader, apparently untouched. His description of her from his train window has all the unforgiving clarity of a photo taken in harsh light:
Missy Jones wore a pink ski vest over a white turtleneck; her blue jeans tucked neatly into white moon boots ringed with fur. She smoked melodramatically, tilting her chin up and blowing her plume at a mock Victorian lamplight. As my train came to a halt, Missy tossed her head back and laughed, flashing her teeth in the mustard light.
Levi Stern holds onto his grief with the tenacity of a man who has banished the word forgiveness from his dictionary. Yet it is Missy, the kind of girl who dots her i’s with hearts and puts stickers on her notebooks, who reaches out for him, forcing Levi into a confrontation after months of avoiding her. “For closure” he sneers, but closure, or something like it, happens anyway. Missy Jones, when he is finally made to look at her, turns out not to be the heartless creature he’s constructed. Her eyes are too big. Her teeth aren’t straight. Her hair is limp, her fingernails chewed raw. “She was just a kid,” he thinks. And Levi Stern, who has been existing for months in the horror-silent moment when he learned of his son’s death, starts living once more in real time, where his son has been dead, now, for months. He has been jumpstarted back into life by a stubborn, sorry teenage girl—“The girl that killed my son.”
It’s not quite a hug, but Rolnick does understand care. It comes through again and again in his stories, the stasis of grief shattered by the quiet shock of someone making contact, and in the process starting the clock again: Missy, planting herself in front of Levi Stern to say “sorry.” A boy and his mother, jollied out of their eternal mourning for a dead father by the gentle interest of a man running from his own grief. A boy desperately sorry for his part in his teacher’s death, forced to see that it wasn’t completely, or even at all, his fault. Over and over again in these stories, characters are wrenched out of the limbo they have trapped themselves in and pushed—sometimes gently, sometimes violently—into life.
Connections in space and time:
“I’ve always wanted to be a writer” is a phrase so common it deserves the huff of annoyance it usually evokes. If it is true as often as it is uttered, then we can only assume all writers come to storytelling the way that priests come to the cloth. Rolnick’s own “calling” followed a more indirect route.
“I have identified as a writer, and loved creative writing, for a very long time,” Rolnick wrote in an essay for The Millions, citing as evidence a certificate he once received in grade school for “Creativity in Writing.” The evidence carries weight, not because he won the award, but because he kept it for all those years. But Rolnick admits he did not want to be a writer; he wanted to be an entomologist. We see flashes of this early childhood obsession, perhaps, in his stories—in one character’s unexpectedly detailed knowledge of the anatomy of earthworms, or in another’s not so random thoughts about paper wasps.
Bugs apparently kept him happily occupied until the day he discovered he would also have to learn about pesticides, after which Rolnick decided that journalism would be the better option. But this left little opportunity for the “creativity in writing” he had once shown such an aptitude for: “Sitting alone at 5 a.m. with a S’mores Pop-Tart and a bitter cup of coffee, waiting for the newspaper guy to arrive with the dailies, I’d contemplate a different future. Could I push the reset button? Could I go back to the kind of creative writing that had first animated me?” He pushed the reset button. Josh Rolnick’s life was no longer measured in news deadlines, but in the series of rejections he received as he sent story after story out to a universe of apparently apathetic literary journals.
Eventually, however, the form-letter rejections started to include short penciled notes from real people. “We won’t use this, but we liked it.” “No thank you, but send more.” The scribbled notes gave way to actual letters, and the letters eventually evolved from rejections to acceptances. That reset button only took about five years to kick in.
People often say of books that touch them deeply, “Oh, I’ve felt just like that!” “I know these people.” “I’ve been there.” But the empathy we feel when a writer does his job as well as Rolnick isn’t simply from seeing our own reflections. It comes from the way he opens our eyes to others. I could talk about how the reporter in “The Herald” reminded me of my brother, or how the old lady refusing to leave her cat in “Pulp and Paper” reminded me of myself. But what I really wanted to do was ask Rolnick to write stories about all of my neighbors—because I have a feeling that the stories are there, waiting to be written. What kind of story would he write about the man next door, who has an ever-rotating collection of cars and motorcycles he works on in the warm summer evenings—his garage door open, the yellow light spilling into the dusk—even though he is neither a mechanic nor running a chop shop?
Or what about the guy down the road who built a three-story house on a postage stamp-sized piece of off-the-waterfront property, rolled out green sod on top of the sand like a carpet, put a picket fence, of all things, around the edge, and now spends his time standing on the third floor deck yelling at the yappy dogs he leaves in the yard. What’s his story?
I want Rolnick to write about the lady down the street who breeds daylilies and gives them names out of the Old Testament. Many of the neighbors have her lilies in their gardens. The soft mauve-colored varieties with the pale yellow throats are popular. She calls them “Drusilla,” which I looked up and discovered means “watered by the dew.”
Of course, it’s always dangerous to draw parallels between a writer’s life and his work too closely, however tempting. Writers are magpies and thieves. They use what they like from the people and things that cross their path, and build airy constructions from the stories in their heads using the bits and pieces of real life as bricks. When real life peers in, it hardly recognizes itself. So perhaps my neighbor working on cars he doesn’t own would prefer not to have his story written. But I think he’d be safe in Josh Rolnick’s hands. Rolnick, who has learned a few things from own trial-and-error life, handles his materials with a compassion that infuses every page.
The real triumph in Pulp and Paper, perhaps, is here—not in the beautiful way the author makes his collection of characters “come alive” on the page, but in the way his gentle, kind, and utterly clear-eyed observations can make the real world come alive even after we’ve put down the book.
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities at a young age when she asked her parents if she could exchange a gift of jewelry for a hardcover Merriam-Webster. Later, her college career and attending loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. Currently she works with the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. She has been a book reviewer for local magazines and newspapers, and the on-air book commentator for her local public radio and television stations. She is also past president and a current member of the board of the North Carolina Writers Network. She lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with a varying numbers of dogs and cats.
Photo of Josh Rolnick by Nancy Williams. Insect image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Daylily photo by DogMomLibrarian.